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SMA Care Series SMA Care Series

Respiratory Care for Children with Spinal Muscular Atrophy
A Guide for Parents and Professionals
Introduction to Respiratory Care 4
What is respiratory care? 4
Why is respiratory care so important in SMA? 4
How do we breathe normally? 4
How do individuals with SMA breathe? 5
Stomach breathing
Bell-shaped chest
Sunken chest
What are common breathing problems
for children with SMA? 6
Lung underdevelopment
Weak cough
Risk of infection and pneumonia
Viral infections, RSV
Swallowing problems, aspiration 7
Sleep problems, hypoventilation
Elements of Respiratory Care
Management in SMA 8
#1: Assessment, Evaluation and Monitoring 8
#2: Breathing Exercises for Lung Development 9
Resuscitator bag and mask
Cough machine
#3: Coughing Practice for Airway Clearance 10
Cough machine
Manual cough assist
#4: Removal of Mucus from Airways and
Lungs (Secretion Mobilization) 11
Chest physiotherapy (manual/mechanical percussion)
Postural drainage 12
Intrapulmonary percussive ventilation (IPV)
High frequency chest-wall oscillation or vest therapy
#5: Measuring Oxygen Levels 12
Pulse oximetry
#6: Breathing Support Options 13
Non-invasive respiratory management
Invasive respiratory management
Mary K. Schroth, M.D.
Associate Professor of Pediatric
Director, Pediatric Pulmonology
Center Grant
American Family Childrens
University of Wisconsin School of
Medicine and Public Health
Expert Review Panel:
Richard S. Finkel, M.D.
Albert M. Freedman, Ph.D.
John T. Kissel, M.D.
Richard M. Kravitz, M.D.
Kristin J. Krosschell, M.A., P.T.
Kathryn J. Swoboda, M.D.
Marilyn Weisberg, M.P.H.
Lindsey Harle, M.D.
The Angel Baby Foundation
and Families of SMA.
Who Should Read this Booklet?
This booklet is written for parents and families of children with Spinal
Muscular Atrophy (SMA). Health care professionals involved in SMA care,
and the general public, may also find this information very helpful.
Night-time breathing support options
Bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP) 14
Mechanical ventilator
Negative pressure ventilation (NPV) 15
Sipper Vent
#7: Care During a Cold 16
Evaluation of mucus build-up and secretion mobilization
Cough machine
Breathing support
Pulse oximeter and oxygen saturation 17
Cold prevention, RSV
#8: Perioperative Evaluation (Before and After Surgery) 18
Special Needs of Children with SMA 19
SMA Type I 19
Breathing support
Respiratory care options and difficult decisions
Non-invasive respiratory care 20
Invasive respiratory care with intubation 21
Palliative care 22
SMA Type II 23
Care during a cold
SMA Type III 24
Conclusion 25
Breathing Basics Summary 25
About Families of SMA 28
For more information 29
Respiratory equipment at home 29
For copies of this booklet 30
Disclaimer 30
What is Respiratory Care?
Respiratory care deals with lung function and health, including breathing.
Pulmonary means relating to the lungs. Pulmonary medicine and pulmonology are
also fields that deal with diseases of the lungs and respiratory tract. In some coun-
tries, these disciplines are called chest medicine and respiratory medicine.
Pulmonologists (lung specialists) and respiratory care therapists help people with
breathing problems. A pediatric pulmonologist is a lung specialist who works
closely with children.
Why is Respiratory Care So
Important in SMA?
Respiratory (breathing) problems are the leading cause of illness for children with
SMA. They are the most common cause of death for children with SMA Type I and
SMA Type II. Respiratory care interventions are essential to the survival and comfort
of children with SMA.
As a parent, it is very important that you watch for breathing problems in your child.
You will want to talk with the doctors, including a pediatric pulmonary specialist, to
develop respiratory care goals that are personalized for your child. (from the Consen-
sus Statement for the Standard of Care in SMA)
How Do We Breathe Normally?
We breathe using two main muscle groups: the intercostal muscles
and the diaphragm. The intercostal muscles are the muscles between
the ribs. These muscles help the rib cage expand as the lungs fill
(inflate) with air.
The diaphragm is a circular muscle located at the bottom of the rib
cage. The diaphragm helps the rib cage to move down, allowing the
lungs to fill (inflate) with air.
The intercostal muscles and the diaphragm work together in normal
breathing. By expanding the chest, these muscles allow the lungs to
fill with air during inspiration (when we breathe in). The oxygen in
this air is then delivered from the lungs to the rest of the body
through the bloodstream. During expiration (when we breathe out),
carbon dioxide is released from the lungs into the air.
I nt r oduc t i on
Location of diaphragm muscle in
relation to the lungs.
How Do Individuals with SMA Breathe?
Stomach Breathing
Children with SMA breathe differently. Their
intercostal muscles between the ribs are weak.
Their diaphragms are stronger and become the
major muscle used for breathing. With weak
intercostal muscles, the rib cage does not expand
outward during breathing. The diaphragm, how-
ever, stays strong and pulls the rib cage down-
ward. This causes what appears to be stomach
breathingwhen the child expands the stomach
while breathing, instead of the chest.
Bell-Shaped Chest
Children with SMA may appear to have
bell-shaped chests, which look wider
at the bottom than at the top. This
happens because the weak intercostal
muscles do not help the upper chest to
expand (or go out) normally during
breathing, and the diaphragm pulls the
chest and rib cage down.
Sunken Chest or Pectus Excavatum
Children with SMA also develop pectus
excavatum. This is when the sternum, the
bone in the middle of the chest, appears to
be sunken. When the diaphragm pulls the
rib cage down, the sternum is also pulled in.
Sunken Chest or Pectus Excavatum
(Courtesy of M. Schroth, M.D.)
Bell-shaped chest
Stomach Breathing
What are Common Respiratory
Problems in Children with SMA?
Normally, the muscles in the rib cage are strong. They allow the lungs to
take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide efficiently. For children with SMA,
the weak muscles in the upper chest make breathing much more difficult.
As a result, they can have a number of respiratory problems including lung
underdevelopment and weak cough; increased difficulty with infection,
including viral infections and pneumonia; swallowing problems and aspira-
tion; and sleep problems with hypoventilation.
Lung Underdevelopment
As children grow, their lungs should continue to grow and develop. For children
with SMA, their weak intercostal muscles do not help the lungs to develop properly.
Over time, their lungs do not grow to normal size and their chest muscles do not
become as strong as we would like them to be.
Weak Cough
When a child with SMA develops a cold, flu, or viral respiratory infection, there is
often an increase in secretions (mucus) from the nose and lungs. A strong cough
helps to clear these secretions and prevent blockage of the airways.
Children with SMA do not have enough muscle strength for a strong cough. With
poor coughing, secretions stay in the lungs and compromise (decrease) breathing.
When breathing tubes and airways become plugged, parts of the lungs can col-
lapse resulting in a condition called atelectasis. Oxygen saturation levels (a meas-
ure of how much oxygen is in the blood) can also drop. See Section #7 for more
on oxygen saturation.
Risk of Infection and Pneumonia
Without a strong cough, secretions from a cold, flu, or other viral infections, as well
as particles in the air, can become lodged in the lungs. This creates an ideal envi-
ronment for bacteria to grow, which can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia means
inflammation or infection of the lungs caused by bacteria or virus.
There are several ways that pneumonia can develop in children with SMA:
Through an upper respiratory infection, like a head cold that turns into a
lower respiratory infection in the lungs (the pneumonia).
When the child aspirates (inhales) food or stomach contents into the lungs.
Viral Respiratory Infections, RSV
Viral respiratory infections can be life threatening. One example is RSV which
stands for respiratory syncytial virus. This virus can look and sound like the
common cold. Anyone can catch it and for most children RSV is no more than a
bad cold. For children with SMA, however, RSV can be very serious and lead to
severe breathing problems, even hospitalization.
Like the common cold, RSV is highly contagious and most often occurs in the late
fall and winter months. It spreads very easily from person to person and by touch-
ing any objects, like toys, infected with the virus. There is a medication in injection
form that your doctor may prescribe to try to prevent RSV. This is used only for a
small number of babies at very high risk for hospitalization.
As a parent, you can help to prevent colds, flu, and RSV through some common-
sense habits. These include good hand washing for everyone in the house; keeping
infected siblings away from the child with SMA; and keeping your child away from
busy, public places like malls and day care centers, during the cold season.
See Section #1 on Assessment, Evaluation, and Monitoring for more information
on immunizations and vaccines; and Section #7: Care During A Cold. Be sure to
talk with your doctors about prevention and treatment measures.
Swallowing Problems, Aspiration
Children with SMA often have problems with swallowing, which can cause them to
aspirate (inhale) food into their lungs while eating. In addition, children with SMA
also frequently have acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux, and heartburn. Acid
reflux happens when liquid or food in the stomach containing acid travels back
from the stomach into the esophagus (swallowing tube), and up into the mouth.
Heartburn is a burning feeling rising from the stomach or lower chest up to the
neck. Poor swallowing due to muscle weakness can lead to inhaling the liquid or
food that comes up from the stomach into the lungs while the child is breathing.
Food and other foreign particles in the lungs can lead to pneumonia. When pneu-
monia is due to breathing in food or liquids, this is called aspiration pneumonia.
Sleep Problems, Hypoventilation
Normally, the muscles of the body relax during sleep, including the muscles we use
for breathing. For children with SMA, this relaxation of the breathing muscles can
result in hypoventilation. Hypoventilation means that breathing is too shallow or
too slow. The lungs are not taking in (inhaling) enough oxygen or giving off
(exhaling) enough carbon dioxide to meet the needs of the body. Hypoventilation
during sleep is often one of the earliest signs of breathing difficulty in SMA.
Children with SMA need regular evaluations from the doctor
every 3 to 6 months, generally, to assess their breathing and
look for any problems. Children with SMA Type III may need to
be seen less often. The following recommendations are
described for the 3 functional levels in SMA: Nonsitters, sitters,
and walkers.
Nonsitters should be evaluated on a regular basis for:
cough effectiveness
gas exchange, including the level of oxygen in the blood
chest wall deformities (changes)
breathing during sleep, with polysomnography (sleep study)
chest x-ray
ability to swallow
new or unexplained respiratory difficulty
Sitters should to be monitored on a regular basis for:
cough effectiveness
chest wall deformities (changes)
breathing during sleep, with polysomnography (sleep study)
Walkers should be evaluated periodically for:
cough effectiveness
pulmonary function, with spiromerry (test of breathing capacity).
other tests, based on clinical symptoms and observations.
All children with SMA should receive regular vaccines, appropriate nutritional support, hydra-
tion, and monitoring for gastro-esophageal reflux (GERD).
For more information on immunizations and vaccines, see guidelines on the website of the
American Academy of Pediatrics at Be sure to talk with your doctors
about medications and prevention techniques that may reduce the risk of your child develop-
ing colds, influenza (flu), and respiratory infections, including RSV. Also, see Section #7 on
Care During A Cold.
We recommend that all parents of
children with SMA talk with their
doctors about their childs respira-
tory care management. Each child
is different and requires his or her
own respiratory care plan with
goals, including a plan for times of
illness. These goals should reflect
the needs of your child and what
you think is best. The goals should
also consider what is reasonable
for you as a parent and caretaker,
and for your family.
Assessment, Evaluation,
and Monitoring
El e me nt s of Re s pi r a t or y Ca r e Ma na g e me nt i n S MA
Breathing exercises, usually done at home, can help children with SMA develop
their lungs. These interventions and exercises
also help the children to improve their ability to
more fully inflate their lungs.
Resuscitator Bag and Mask
The resuscitator bag and mask can help with
breathing. If you place the mask over your childs
nose and mouth, you can provide a breath with
the bag as your child inhales. This can be
repeated several times, for several minutes.
Cough Machine
A cough machine can be used to help your child inhale and exhale.
The machine forces air into the lungs at a preset pressure and then
sucks the air out of the lungs at a preset pressure.
For lung development, set the cough machine in the inhalation only
mode by turning the exhale time to 0. Place the mask over the
childs nose and mouth or use a mouthpiece. With a preset pressure,
the machine will then help the childs lungs to inflate.
Breathing Exercises for
Lung Development
Resuscitator bag and mask

Cough assist machine, tubing, and face mask.
Coughing (or airway clearance) is necessary to remove nasal secre-
tions and inhaled particles. Helping children with SMA to cough
more forcefully prevents lung infections and other respiratory com-
plications associated with retained secretions. Coughing can be
improved with a cough machine or with manual cough assistance.
Cough Machine
A cough machine can also be very helpful for coughing
and airway clearance. As mentioned above, the
machine pushes air into the lungs and then sucks the
air out of the lungs at preset pressures. This action
can help produce a more effective cough for your
child, more like the cough of a healthy child. A typical
pattern is to rest for 1 to 2 minutes between sets of
4 to 5 breaths. You can obtain a cough machine
from a durable medical supply provider with a
prescription fom your doctor.
Manual Cough Assistance
Manual means by hand. In manual coughing assistance, a parent or
other caretaker places gentle upward pressure with their hands on
the childs abdomen and diaphragm as the child coughs. This helps
the child to move the diaphragm up and can create a stronger
exhalation (breath going out). After manual (or mechanical) cough
assistance, secretions should be suctioned out of the childs mouth
or the secretions can be swallowed. Please ask a pulmonologist or
respiratory therapist to demonstrate manual cough assist before you
do it with your child.
Coughing and Airway Clearance
Cough machine
Cough assistance with intubation
During colds, most children with SMA have more
trouble coughing. They are unable to effectively
clear out the secretions that build up in their
airways. There are several techniques available to
help with secretion mobilization, or the removal
of mucus from the airways and lungs. These
techniques include chest physiotherapy (both
manual and mechanical), postural drainage,
intrapulmonary percussive ventilation (IPV),
and high-frequency chest-wall oscillation
(vest therapy).
Chest Physiotherapy (also known as Manual
or Mechanical Percussion)
Chest physiotherapy is the gold standard for
secretion mobilization. It is used to loosen
secretions so they are easier to cough up. With the
manual percussion (vibrating, clapping) technique, the caregiver uses his or her
hands and gravity to help loosen secretions. You can use a face mask or palm cups
to gently clap on the childs chest wall. Ask your healthcare provider if this is advis-
able for your child and to show you how to properly do chest physiotherapy.
In mechanical percussion, the caregiver places a vibrating
device on the childs chest to loosen secretions.
Children who are severely affected by SMA may need
cough assistance using chest physiotherapy on a daily
basis. Others may only need assistance when they are
Removal of Mucus from the Airways
and Lungs (Secretion Mobilization)
Cupped hand for chest physiotherapy
Chest Physiotherapy with palm cups
Postural Drainage
In postural drainage, the child is positioned at an incline
(pillows and wedges help) with his or her head and
chest lower than the buttocks. Gravity then pulls secre-
tions from the lower airways into the upper airways,
where they can be removed by suctioning or coughing.
Intrapulmonary Percussive Ventilation (IPV)
An IPV is a machine that provides positive air pressure into the lungs at a
set frequency and sounds like a choo-choo train. Medication or saline is
nebulized (turned into a fine mist that travels with air) into the childs
lungs. The pressure and frequency are preset to a comfortable level for
the child. This shakes and loosens the secretions inside the lungs so that they are
easier to cough out.
IPV is expensive and may be no more effective than other less expensive
methods, like chest physiotherapy, for removing fluids from the lungs.
High Frequency Chest-Wall Oscillation or Vest Therapy
This device is worn like a vest. It gently shakes the chest and loosens the
secretions inside the lungs. The vest is expensive and may be no more
effective than the other less-expensive methods, like chest physiother-
apy, for removing fluids from the lungs.
Pulse Oximetry
Measurements of pulse oximetry (the amount of oxygen in the blood) can be
performed with a simple, lightweight clamp or Band-Aid-like wrap on the childs
finger or toe. This measurement will tell you if your child is clearing secretions
adequately. If your child has very weak breathing in general, you may find it
helpful to measure oxygen saturation (the oxygen level in the blood) using the
pulse oximetry when he or she is well, so that you have a baseline measure-
ment. You can then compare this measure from healthier times against the
measure when ill. 95% or higher is considered normal oxygen saturation.
For more on pulse oximetry and oxygen saturation, see #7: Care During A Cold.
Measuring Oxygen Levels
Postural Drainage
Vest Therapy
Non-invasive Respiratory Care Management
Non-invasive means that no devices are used that are inside or
penetrate the body as part of the breathing procedure. Everything
is on or outside the body.
Non-invasive respiratory care will help your child breathe using an
air-tight mask over the nose, or nose and mouth. The mask is
connected to a machine that helps with breathing.
Invasive Respiratory Care Management
Invasive means that devices are used that are inside or penetrate the body to help
with breathing. Needles, tubes, lines, and surgery may be used.
Invasive respiratory care will help your child breathe
through a breathing tube attached to a mechanical
ventilator (breathing machine). The tube goes into
the body through the mouth or through a small hole
in the neck, and into the lungs. At first, invasive
respiratory care uses a breathing tube, called an
endotracheal tube, through the mouth. The endo-
tracheal tube, if left in the airway for more than a
few days to weeks, can cause damage and irritate
the mouth and throat. The placement of a tube
into the body is called intubation.
When ventilator support is needed for an extended period of time, the doctor may
need to place a tracheostomy tube. For the tracheostomy, the doctor makes a
small, surgical hole in the childs neck. A breathing tube, called a trach, is inserted
through this hole, where it bypasses the mouth and vocal cords, and goes directly
into the large airway, known as the trachea.
Night-time Breathing Support Options
Children with SMA Type I, and some children with Type II, have very weak breathing
during sleep, with short and shallow breaths, and poor oxygen and carbon dioxide
exchange (hypoventilation). When this happens, the child has too little oxygen and
too much carbon dioxide in the body.
Breathing Support Options
Non-invasive breathing
support with nose mask
Invasive breathing support
with a tracheostomy
Intubation with endotracheal tube
When oxygen levels are too low and carbon dioxide levels are
too high, the body cannot function normally. To prevent
hypoventilation, some children need mechanical breathing
support while they are sleeping to help them rest their breathing
muscles. If they become sick with a cold or flu, they may need
this support even while awake.
With improvements in oxygen exchange and better sleeping,
children with hypoventilation may have less nighttime sweating,
fewer headaches, better appetites and weight gain, and better
There are 3 ways to help children with SMA breathe while sleeping. These include
use of BiPAP, mechanical ventilation, and negative pressure ventilation (NPV).
Bi-level Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP, pronounced bye-pap)
The BiPAP machine provides two levels of positive airway
pressure delivered through a mask over the nose, or over the
nose and mouth, or through a tube under the nose and into the
nostrils. The machine provides higher pressure and an increased
volume of air when the child inhales. When the child exhales,
the machine lowers its pressure automatically to allow for a
more normal breathing pattern.
A BiPAP machine can sense a childs normal breathing cycle and
synchronize (work at same time or rate) with this cycle. The
machine will also give breaths when the child is in deep sleep
and is not breathing adequately on his or her own.
These are the BiPAP settings commonly used in SMA care that
help children to rest their breathing muscles:
Inspiratory positive airway pressure (IPAP) of
14 to 20 cm H2O.
Expiratory positive airway pressure (EPAP) of
3 to 6 cm H2O.
Respiratory rate of 14 to 30 breaths per minute,
based on age and resting respiratory rate.
Inspiratory time of 0.5 to 1.5 seconds, based on age and
respiratory rate.
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a different type of setting that gives
one continuous amount or level of pressure. This may not provide adequate rest for
breathing muscles. It is not recommended for SMA patients.
Bipap with nose mask
BiPAP with nasal prongs
Child on supplemental oxygen with
NG (nasogastric) tube
Mechanical Ventilator
Mechanical ventilators have more options and settings than
BiPAP and they allow for better control of breathing. Mechani-
cal ventilation can be delivered using a nose mask, a
nose/mouth mask, or through a tracheostomy tube. This type
of breathing support can be used while the child is awake
and/or asleep.
There are different types of mechanical ventilators, including
some that can be carried over the shoulder or placed on a
wheelchair. Portable external batteries are also available.
Negative Pressure Ventilator (NPV)
This type of ventilator encircles the chest in a large, external chamber, much like the
iron lung used many years ago. The chamber is connected to a vacuum that
draws air out of the chamber. As air goes out, negative pressure in the chamber
builds up, helping to expand the chest and bring air into the lungs. The ventilator
can be set to a specific vacuum pressure and respiratory rate. A Porta-Lung is an
example of a negative pressure ventilator. Some children continue to use NPV, but
this type of ventilation is rarely prescribed today due to technological improve-
ments in BiPAP and mechanical ventilators.
Sipper Vent
This device allows a child or adult to take a
breath while in the wheelchair through a
small mouthpiece, positioned like a micro-
phone in front of the face. The mouthpiece
is connected to a ventilator which provides
a boost of air for talking and breathing at
the same time.
sipper vent
Mechanical ventilator
Evaluation of Mucus Build-up and Secretion Mobilization
During a cold, children with SMA may have difficulty clearing mucus from their
lungs. To reduce this problem, take these steps in this order every 4 hours, and as
needed, during a cold:
Airway secretion mobilization: Do this for 10-20 minutes. Use a technique that
loosens secretions, including chest physiotherapy with your hands or with palm
cups; or electric percussor (mechanical percussion); or high frequency chest-
wall oscillation (vest therapy); or intrapulmonary percussive ventilation (IPV).
Cough machine: Do 4 sets of 5 breaths to remove the loosened secretions.
Then, suction secretions from the childs mouth.
Postural drainage: Do this for 15-30 minutes. Position the child at an incline
(pillows and wedges help) with the childs head and chest lower than the
Cough machine, again: Do 4 sets of 5 breaths, again, to remove the loosened
secretions. Then suction secretions from the mouth, again.
Cough Machine
The cough machine is an important tool and you can
never use it too much! Use the cough machine every
time your childs breathing sounds coarse or there is
trouble coughing out secretions. If your child has diffi-
culty coughing out secretions from the back of the
throat, you may also suction the mouth.
Breathing Support
Colds make children with SMA weaker. During a cold, if
your child is already on BiPAP or another breathing
support, use the BiPAP during all sleep, including naps
during the day. Breathing support may also be needed
when your child is awake and sick with a cold. Use the
pulse oximeter, as described in the next paragraph, to
know when your child needs to be on BiPAP.
Care During a Cold
(upper respiratory illness)
Child on cough machine
Pulse Oximeter and Oxygen Saturation
Use a pulse oximeter to check your childs blood oxygen level when the child is well
to establish a baseline. Then use it more frequently if your child appears to be having
difficulty breathing. Use it often if your child is sick. It is not always easy to know if
your child is having breathing difficulty just by looking. The pulse oximeter will tell
you if there is a problem and if your child needs help with coughing.
Oxygen saturation is a measure of how much oxygen is in the blood. Children with
SMA need extra breathing support when their oxygen saturation level drops too low.
General Guidelines for Oxygen Saturation
If your child is vomiting, has diarrhea or a poor appetite and is not taking in fluids, he
or she may become dehydrated. This is a serious complication in children with SMA.
You should call your doctor if you see these symptoms and suspect any dehydration.
Cold Prevention, including RSV
There are important steps you can take to prevent exposure to colds, RSV, and other
viruses, particularly in the first few months of your childs life:
Make sure everyone washes their hands before touching your child.
Keep your child away from anyone who has a cold, fever, or runny nose.
Keep your child away from crowded areas, like shopping malls.
Keep your child away from tobacco smoke, which increases the risk of and
complications from severe viral infections.
Restrict your childs exposure to groups of children during the cold season,
particularly in day care centers.
Immunize your child with SMA and siblings against the flu.
If oxygen saturation is less than 94%...
Use the cough machine to clear secretions while
monitoring the pulse oximeter.
If oxygen saturation is 92% or less and the cough
machine is not increasing the oxygen saturation
First, place your child on BiPAP, or another
breathing support device, and give airway
clearance treatment; then contact your physician.
If you cannot maintain oxygen saturation greater
than 90% while on BiPAP and in-room air
Call emergency services because your child may
need to be in the hospital for more intense
What is RSV and how can I protect my child from getting it? Parenting Corner, American
Academy of Pediatrics web site:
Individuals with SMA are prone to certain
complications after surgery, including respira-
tory infection and breathing problems. If these
complications occur, your child may need to be
intubated and placed on a ventilator for a
period of time, and may even need a tra-
cheostomy. As described in earlier sections, a
tracheostomy calls for a small surgical hole in
the neck, where a breathing tube (the trach)
is inserted. The trach bypasses the mouth and
vocal cords and goes directly into the large airway, known as
the trachea. The best way to avoid complications is to evaluate respiratory health
before and after surgery and take any needed precautions.
Evaluation before elective surgery (pre-operative) should include:
Physical exam by a pulmonologist
Measurement of respiratory function and cough strength
Swallow evaluation, if warranted
Chest x-ray
Sleep study, if warranted
The care plan after surgery (post-operative) will depend on the results of the pre-
operative evaluation and the type of surgery.
If there is pain with breathing or coughing after surgery, talk with the doctor imme-
diately about pain medication for your child. Shallow breathing and a weak cough
related to pain can lead to pneumonia.
If, after surgery, your child has severe problems with breathing (including sleep
apnea), cough clearance, and poor muscle function, he or she may need to go into
the intensive care unit.
Perioperative Evaluations
(Before and After Surgery)
What are Special Needs of
Children with SMA Type I?
Children with SMA Type I face many physical challenges. There is no
treatment to reverse or stop the progression of SMA Type I and there is no
cure. There are, however, care interventions that will help with breathing
and feeding problems, muscle weakness, bouts of illness, and discomfort.
Breathing Support
Each child with SMA Type I is unique and has a different set of issues and chal-
lenges in regard to chest muscle weakness and strength. Therefore, what your
doctors, therapists, and you can do to help with breathing support varies from child
to child. Their needs are difficult to predict.
The breathing support for children with SMA Type I can include a range of interven-
tions even when they are well. During colds, most Type I children need extra
breathing support. This may include BiPAP or a ventilator, either while asleep and
possibly 24 hours per day, until the cold improves. Almost all children with SMA
Type I will breathe better during sleep with BiPAP or a ventilator with a nasal mask,
starting at an early age.
Type I Breathing Support
Respiratory Care Options and Difficult Decisions
Parents of children with SMA Type I face difficult decisions about respiratory care
management. These decisions have to do with 1) non-invasive respiratory care, 2)
invasive respiratory care, and 3) palliative care.
Ask your doctor to talk openly with you about what is involved in these three
different approaches, including the advantages and disadvantages for your child,
and what they mean for you as a caretaker. In these conversations, tell the doctors
about your beliefs and values. What do you feel will add quality and meaning to
your childs life?
No breathing
BiPAP or
during sleep
with nose
clock breathing
support, with
or without
S MA Ty pe I
Some parents are very aggressive about their childs
medical care, seeking to extend life as long as possible.
Others want a moderate level of medical care to minimize
illness and promote strength and comfort. Others use very
few interventions and allow nature to take its course. Finally,
some parents use a combination of approaches. Loving, caring parents make
different choices and there is no one right or best way.
What is best for one child may not be the best choice for another. Be sure to
discuss all options with your doctors. Create a plan of action for different stages
and points in the future, including times when your childs breathing situation
changes. It is always better to have a plan and to think ahead, than to not have a
plan and be caught off-guard in a crisis. You may need to act quickly in an emer-
gency and will want to be as ready as possible. Remember, plans can always be
changed and adjusted, based on your childs needs, and if you change your mind.
Non-Invasive Respiratory Care
You will be asked about non-invasive breathing support with a nose mask, or nose
and mouth mask, for your child. The mask is attached to a BiPAP (Bi-level Positive
Airway Pressure) machine or a mechanical ventilator, both of which deliver a
continuous flow of air to the lungs. These methods and equipment are usually
effective, but parents are advised to monitor closely with pulse oximetry. Many
parents find that they need to be even more vigilant with their childs care during
times of illness. See Section #7, Care During A Cold, for special steps to take with
your child.
Many children tolerate the nose mask breathing support very well and can use it
continuously. For a variety of reasons, however, the mask does not work well for
every child or family. Common problems include skin irritation, pressure sores, poor
fit, or the child just rejects the mask. The pulmonologist-respiratory therapist team
can work with you to find a solution for your child. If your child has difficulty adapt-
ing to BiPAP, or if your child needs breathing support for 24 hours per day, you will
need to make some hard choices about the next steps in your childs respiratory
care plan.
Invasive Respiratory Care with Intubation
You will be asked about invasive approaches, including intubation, if your child is
very sick, especially with a cold. Intubation will help your child breathe through a
tube in the mouth. This tube can be used for a few weeks to
a month or a tracheostomy (tube through small surgical
incision in the neck) may be needed. Either tube is con-
nected to a ventilator that supplies a continuous flow of air
into the lungs. There is no face mask.
Remember, everyone becomes weaker with a cold. Your
child may or may not recover from this cold or flu. Talk with
your doctor to find out if the illness and breathing problems
are temporary and reversible or a sign that your child is
gradually becoming weaker overall.
If your child is intubated after surgery or because your child
is acutely ill, it will be important for your child to receive
aggressive airway clearance. This is extremely helpful while
intubated and immediatly after extubation (tube removal),
when the child returns to non-invasive breathing support with a nose mask. The
goal is to achieve a normal chest x-ray and to not need supplemental (extra)
oxygen before extubation.
If your child is able to return to the mask, breathing support, and
then does not tolerate it (despite the best efforts of the doctors
and respiratory care therapists), you will be faced with these
difficult decisionsshould you
Seek a second opinion from doctors and therapists who are more
experienced in non-invasive breathing support and SMA?
Continue breathing support with intubation?
Withdraw all interventions and let nature take its course?
Transition to palliative care?
There is no one right answer and, as a parent, you can only do what
you feel is best for your child and for your family. These are very
personal decisions and they are different for each family.

Palliative Care
The word palliative means soothing, calming, and pain
relieving. It is all about comfort.
There is no easy way to define the elements of palliative
care for children with SMA. They are different for each child
and family. You may decide that you no longer want to
prolong your childs life if it includes more illness
and suffering. But, you may want to help your child
breathe more easily, with some degree of breathing
support (such as BiPAP) and to be as comfortable
as possible no matter what.
There are a number of gentle, non-invasive inter-
ventions that can help to keep your child very
comfortable. Please discuss these with your doctors.
From American Academy of Pediatrics, Policy Statement on Palliative Care for Children.
From the Consensus Statement for the Standard of Care in SMA.
In the most severe cases of SMA,
parents can be faced with anguishing
decisions about therapies that they
see as prolonging suffering rather
than relieving the disease. Whenever
possible, end-of-life care options need
to be defined and discussed openly
with parents and family members so
that any decisions made reflect their
values. It is important to have this
discussion, however difficult, before a
crisis occurs.
The goal of palliative care
is to add life to the childs
years, not simply years to the
childs lifeto optimize the
childs experience, rather
than hasten death.
What are Special Needs of
Children with SMA Type II?
Children with SMA Type II rarely need a tracheostomy. In general, these children are
strong and they can be managed with non-invasive respiratory care techniques on
a day-to-day basis. This means that when the child is healthy, he or she can use
BiPAP or a ventilator with a nose mask, or negative pressure ventilation during
sleep; and the cough assist device, when needed. Some children with SMA Type II
do not need any breathing support during sleep.
Type II Breathing Support
Care During A Cold
When children with SMA Type II develop colds, they may need to use the mask
breathing support more often and sometimes continuously. They will be weaker
than usual during the cold, but strength will return after the cold is over.
During the cold, they will need respiratory care treatments
every 4 hours with airway secretion mobilization, cough
machine use, and postural drainage. The cough machine
may be needed more often to clear the mucus. See
Section #7 on Care During A Cold.
No breathing
BiPAP or
ventilator with
nose mask during
sleep, as needed
(as in times of
cold, flu, or other
BiPAP or
ventilator with
nose mask
during sleep.
S MA Ty pe I I
What are Special Needs of
Children with SMA Type III?
Children with SMA Type III are generally strong and have good respiratory function.
In times of illness (colds, flu, infection), however, they may need non-invasive
breathing support with manual cough assistance. Airway suctioning, chest physio-
therapy, oximetry, and postural drainage should be considered, also as needed.
Non-invasive breathing support, combined with airway clearance techniques, will
reduce the need for intubation. Tracheostomies are not appropriate for Type IIIs.
In some cases, children and adults with SMA Type III can have breathing trouble
that goes unrecognized, including obstructive sleep apnea and hypoventilation.
Routine assessments should include:
Pulmonary function tests (spirometry, lung volumes,
respiratory muscle function tests)
Physical exam
Measurement of cough effectiveness
S MA Ty pe I I I
Breathing Basics Summary
Breathing and respiratory care problems are the leading cause of illness for
children with SMA. They are the most common cause of death for children with
SMA Type I and II.
Respiratory care interventions (breathing support measures) are essential to the
survival and comfort of children with SMA.
Children with SMA Types I and II have very weak breathing muscles. This weak-
ness makes it difficult for them to cough and clear lung secretions, and can cause
poor breathing during sleep. Respiratory muscle weakness results in difficulty
managing colds, flu, and other illnesses.
Children with SMA breathe differently due to weak breathing muscles. The pull of
their stronger diaphragm muscle causes stomach breathing, which results in a
bell-shaped chest and sunken sternum bone.
As a parent of a child with SMA, you will want to consult early with doctors,
including a pediatric pulmonary specialist. Your child will need a personalized
respiratory care plan with goals, including goals for times of illness.
Children with SMA Type I face many physical challenges. Their breathing support
needs vary and are difficult to predict. Breathing support can range from no
breathing support; to breathing machine at night with nose mask; to around-the-
clock breathing support with or without a tracheostomy tube.
During colds, most Type I children will need extra breathing support, including a
breathing machine for 24 hours per day, until the cold goes away.
Parents of children with SMA Type I face difficult decisions about respiratory care
management. These decisions relate to 3 key approaches to care: non-invasive
respiratory care, invasive respiratory care, and palliative care. Parents should talk
openly with the doctors about these different approaches, including advantages
and disadvantages for the child and the family. Loving, caring parents make
different choices and there is no right or best way.
Children with SMA Type II rarely need tracheostomies. In general, these children
are strong and they can be managed with non-invasive respiratory care tech-
niques on a day-to-day basis. In times of cold or illness, they may need the nose
mask and cough assistance during sleep.
Conc l us i on
Children and adults with SMA Type III are generally strong and can be managed
with non-invasive respiratory techniques during times of illness. They can have
trouble with breathing that goes unrecognized, including obstructive sleep apnea
and hypoventilation. Regular check-ups are important.
Basic elements of a respiratory care management program:
1: Assessment, Evaluation, and Monitoring
Children with SMA need regular evaluations with the doctor every 3-6 months,
generally, to assess breathing and look for any problems. Children with SMA
Type III may need to be seen less often.
2: Breathing Exercises for Lung Development
Breathing exercises, usually done at home, can help children with SMA
develop their lungs.
3: Coughing and Airway Clearance
Coughing and airway clearance are necessary to remove nasal secretions and
inhaled particles. Helping children with SMA to cough more forcefully will help
prevent lung infections and other respiratory complications. Non-invasive
interventions include use of a cough machine and manual cough assist.
4: Removal of Mucus from the Airways
Children with SMA cannot cough strongly enough to remove secretions from
their upper airways, especially during colds. Non-invasive techniques for
removing secretions include chest physiotherapy (manual or mechanical
percussion), postural drainage, intrapulmonary percussive ventilation (IPV),
and high-frequency chest-wall oscillation or vest therapy.
5: Measuring Oxygen Levels
Children with SMA need extra breathing support when their oxygen saturation
levels drop too low. A pulse oximeter is an easy, non-invasive tool for measur-
ing oxygen level.
6: Breathing Support
There are both invasive and non-invasive interventions that help children with
SMA to breathe more easily. Non-invasive respiratory care calls for an air-tight
mask over the nose or nose and mouth. Invasive respiratory care calls for a
breathing tube through the mouth or through a small surgical hole in the neck
(a tracheostomy). In both non-invasive and invasive breathing support, the
tubes are connected to a breathing machine that pumps air into the airways
and lungs.
Children with SMA Type I and SMA Type II often need additional breathing
support during sleep and during times of cold, flu, and illness.
7: Care During A Cold
During a cold, children with SMA may have difficulty clearing mucus from their
lungs. Care interventions include airway secretion mobilization, use of cough
machine, postural drainage, and pulse oximetry to measure oxygen saturation
8: Perioperative Evaluations
Individuals with SMA are prone to certain complications after surgery, including
respiratory infection and breathing problems. The best way to avoid these
complications is to evaluate their respiratory health both before and after
surgery and to take any needed precautions.
What is Families of SMA?
Families of SMA is a non-profit organization and the
largest network of families, clinicians, and research
scientists working together to advance SMA research,
support families, and educate the public and profes-
sional community about SMA. Through numerous
chapters in the U.S., and more than 55,000 support-
ers, FSMA raises millions of dollars every year for SMA research. This funding fosters
basic and clinical research, drug discovery programs, and multi-center clinical trials.
The ultimate goal of FSMA is to accelerate the discovery of an effective treatment
and cure for SMA.
Every June, FSMA hosts the SMA Family and Professionals Conference. This brings
together families, clinicians, and research scientists from around the world to
discuss the latest breakthroughs in SMA research and care management. Parents
and children find this a wonderful networking event and stimulating educational
experience. Please join us!
Families of Spinal Muscular Atrophy
P.O. Box 196
Libertyville, IL 60048-0196
Phone: 1-800-886-1762
Fax: 847-367-7623
Email inquiries:
Families of SMA
Were on the Web!
Donations to SMA research:
Comments on this booklet:
Where to Go for More Information:
Families of SMA Website:
Consensus Statement on Standard of Care in SMA:
Family Guide to Consensus Statement on Standard of Care in SMA:
What Respiratory Equipment
Will You Need at Home?
Talk with your doctors and the respiratory care therapists
about the equipment you will need at home. This may
include the following:
I Cough machine
I Method for airway secretion (mucus) mobilization
(manual or electric chest physiotherapy)
I Method for performing postural drainage
I Pulse oximeter to monitor oxygen saturation level
I BiPAP machine or mechanical ventilator
I Portable suction machine
Please note that oxygen tanks are typically not needed.
However, some children with SMA Type I may require
supplemental oxygen for emergencies.
For electronic copies:
Download this booklet from
the FSMA web site at Go to the respiratory care section.
For print copies:
Please contact the FSMA national office at
Families of SMA does not, as an organization, support or endorse any particular treatment
or therapy. Information contained in this booklet is for informational and educational
purposes only. All medical information presented should be discussed with a qualified
Date of publication: February 2009
2009 Families of Spinal Muscular Atrophy
Support. Research. Hope.
Families of SMA
Spinal Muscular Atrophy
Families of SMA
PO Box 196, Libertyville, IL 60048-0196
1.800.886.1762 Fax 847.367.7623
BREATHING BASICS - SMA Care Series: Booklet #2
This educational booklet was produced
with generous support from
The Angel Baby Foundation.